She is President Obama’s conscience on immigration — and his chief defender against those who say he’s done too little to protect immigrant families.
Which means it has been a busy summer for Cecilia Muñoz, the president’s domestic policy director and the highest-ranking Hispanic official in the White House.
In June, Muñoz stood up for her boss during a tense meeting between Obama and 20 immigrant rights advocates who accused him of moving too quickly to deport thousands of Central American children. “No, you’re confused,” she told them. “People have misconstrued this.”
Last week, she was among the West Wing staffers delivering the news to Democrats on Capitol Hill and to activists that Obama would postpone plans to use executive action to defer deportations for many of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
For Muñoz, 52, it’s a role she has played since joining Obama’s staff in 2009 after a two-decade career as an outspoken immigrant rights leader. Time and again, Obama has relied on her to justify the immigration policies she fought so fiercely when she was on the other side of the table. Muñoz has been called upon to defend an administration that has deported more than 2 million people, most of them Hispanic. And time and again, she has had to defend a president whose inability to stem many of the removals has disappointed Latino voters, who supported him in record numbers.
This has often placed Muñoz in the uncomfortable position of squaring off against her former colleagues. This past spring, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, where Muñoz served as vice president, dubbed Obama the “deporter in chief.”
“You can see it in her body language at our meetings, where you could tell she’s visibly pained by the conversation or frustrated,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “No doubt this has been a really, really trying and challenging period for her. She really believes the president wants to get immigration reform done and none of us give him enough credit.”
The collapse of comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress this summer has raised the stakes for Obama. He pledged in June to use executive authority to remake border-control policies by summer’s end. But the White House announced Saturday that he would not act until after the midterm elections in November because of political concerns from jittery Democrats. The news only added to the list of disappointments for Latinos, activists and some Democratic lawmakers.
Advocates who are pushing Obama to grant deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants say this represents the last chance for the president — and, by extension, Muñoz — to salvage their legacy in the Hispanic community.
Muñoz declined to comment for this story, but in an interview with MSNBC on Monday, she blamed Republicans for not supporting an immigration bill.
“I’ve spoken with some of them [in the immigrant community], and what I said is the president wants the same things you want,” she said. “The emotion on this is very high for completely understandable reasons, and frankly the president shares that emotion, and so do I.”
The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, Muñoz grew up in a Detroit suburb, and she recalled a friend telling her that her parents would belong in an internment camp if the United States were to become involved in Latin America’s civil wars in the early 1980s.
“My outrage that day became the propellant of my life, driving me straight to the civil rights movement,” she wrote in an essay for NPR.
It also drove her straight into the center of Washington’s immigration debate. Advocates credit Muñoz with standing up to the Clinton White House to restore food stamp assistance to legal permanent residents in 1997. The late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) consulted her regularly as he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) developed comprehensive immigration legislation in 2007, a bill that failed to pass the Senate.
In 2000, Muñoz’s work on immigration policy earned her a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant of $500,000.
Muñoz was “a ferocious advocate,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “She was the kind of person who was welcomed warmly when she talked with grass-roots advocates who were skeptical of what happened in Washington.”
Muñoz also caught the eye of Obama, who, shortly after joining the Senate in 2005, held a meeting with her and other civil rights leaders. As Congress debated immigration legislation in 2006 and 2007, Obama brought Muñoz to his office for regular policy briefings and occasionally called her on her cellphone.
When he was running for president in 2008, Obama delivered a campaign address at the National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego, promising to make immigration reform a “top priority in my first year as president.”
Muñoz turned down the initial offer to join his White House staff as director of intergovernmental affairs because of personal concerns. Her mother had recently died, and Muñoz and her husband, Amit Pandya, a human rights lawyer, were raising two teenage daughters.
She accepted only after Obama called her and made a personal appeal while she was in the car with one of her daughters.
“You had the first African American president, and this was an issue, like so many issues, where a more progressive vision of policy had been on ice for many years because of [George W.] Bush,” said Angela Kelley, a friend of Muñoz’s who serves as vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “She had a chance to do it from somewhere different at an extraordinary moment in history.”
If Muñoz was eager to get started on sweeping reform, others in the Obama White House were not. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had referred to immigration as the “third rail of American politics” while serving as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, when Democrats had control of both houses of Congress, the White House put most of its political muscle into securing an economic stimulus and a health-care overhaul. White House officials emphasize that the president helped push the Dream Act, which offered legal status for young immigrants brought to the country as children, through the House in 2010 before it failed in the Senate.
In the meantime, however, the administration ramped up deportations of undocumented immigrants, betting that a strong enforcement record would mitigate Republican arguments, in the debate over comprehensive reform, that the border was not secure.
In October 2011, the White House dispatched Muñoz to defend the deportation policies on a PBS documentary, “Lost in Detention.” Responding to a question, Muñoz said that “even broken laws have to be enforced,” and she added that the administration had to fulfill the congressional budget mandate that allocated resources to deport 400,000 people a year.
Within days, Presente.org, a Latino rights group, launched a petition saying she had misrepresented the facts. Muñoz “used to be a champion for immigrant rights. Now she is the main defender of failed programs,” the petition said.
Murguía, who worked in the Clinton White House, said she understands the competing pressures her former deputy has faced. Muñoz is a loyal lieutenant who, “if her point of view does not prevail, will go out and defend the administration’s position,” Murguía said. “She does this even if it happens to come at a great cost to her personally.”
Friends vehemently dispute criticism that Muñoz has betrayed her values. The administration has revamped its policies to focus deportations on immigrants who have committed felonies or multiple crimes and those who have recently arrived.
And colleagues point to her influence on Obama’s announcement, in June 2012, that his administration would no longer deport most younger immigrants who had come to the country illegally as children. The decision, which came during the president’s reelection campaign, was considered politically risky by some — but Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino and Asian American vote that November.
His “deferred action” program has since benefitted more than 580,000 people, and Obama is reportedly considering a major expansion that could benefit millions more immigrants as part of his executive actions.
Muñoz “feels confident in having done the best she could do with the situation handed to her,” Kelley said. “But that’s not to say it doesn’t hurt when some people — friends you’ve worked side by side with for years — are now criticizing you.”